How Virtual Idols Became Real-Life Brand Ambassadors in China

Plus: iQiyi spills the beans, Bilibili rumors, and the CCI Report Corner.

Since the beginning of 2020, the global coronavirus pandemic has forced fundamental shifts in behavior, with virtual interactions and events emerging as a key way for people to stay connected while staying in. That shift has also spurred greater interest in virtual idols — digital celebrities who sing, dance, and offer versatility for brands. 

The virtual world resonates deeply with China’s Gen Z demographic, a digitally native generation that has grown up with gaming and anime and has the rising spending power to match their demand for companies and products that resonate. Brands seeking to reach this group of consumers are increasingly turning virtual idols to represent their products. 

  • Chinese sportswear brand Li Ning recently partnered with Tencent Games to “hire” Xing Tong, a virtual idol in Tencent’s QQ Dance game, as a brand ambassador. Xing Tong appears in a short brand film from Li Ning that highlights the new “retro-futurism” style of its upcoming products. This type of creative content helps merge Li Ning’s status as a “national trend” (guochao) brand with the futuristic gameplay of QQ Dance. Xing Tong is also emerging as a fashion icon for youth-oriented brands — last year, the virtual idol was part of a Levi’s campaign during Shanghai Fashion Week. 

  • Brands are also developing their own idols to offer innovative content. In 2017, China Mobile’s entertainment content subsidiary Migu and Japan’s NTT Docomo launched a virtual idol group called Lin & Rhino (麟 & 犀), which debuted via an interactive animated film. In March, Lin & Rhino celebrated its third anniversary with a livestreamed “borderless live 5G concert” that invited fans around the world to experience a 360-degree panoramic virtual idol performance. The concert was broadcast via Migu in China, on Niconico Live in Japan, and on YouTube for the rest of the world. 

  • Virtual idols are among the celebrities getting in on China’s e-commerce livestreaming trend. In May, Tmall’s Youth Lab brought together five top virtual stars, including Luo Tianyi, for a special via Taobao Live. The idols interacted with fans during the broadcast while promoting goods for global brands such as Bausch & Lomb and L’Occitane. The one-hour show reached a peak viewership of 2.7 million with extremely high engagement: nearly 2 million viewers participated in an interactive segment to try to win prizes.  

  • For the 618 shopping festival in June, Taobao appointed the popular Japanese virtual idol Hatsune Miku as an official ambassador for the event, and users were welcomed to interact with her through their avatars on Taobao Life, the platform’s interactive 3D avatar game. Within half a day of the announcement, Hatsune Miku reportedly drew more than 2.7 million followers on the app. 

  • Video streaming platform iQiyi is aiming to mint the next generation of China’s virtual idols with its upcoming reality show “Cross-Dimensional New Star” (跨次元新星), set to premiere in September. The program will offer a new take on the popular idol competition format, with actress and social media celebrity Angelababy and rapper Xiao Gui among the mentors who will form teams and offer feedback on the singing and dancing skills of the virtual contestants. iQiyi is offering multiple opportunities for brands in industries such as electronics, e-commerce, and food and beverage that can be promoted by both the virtual idol contestants and their celebrity mentors.

- by Ginger Ooi, CCI Team

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Mentioned in today’s newsletter: Bausch & Lomb, Bilibili, Ikea, iQiyi, L’Occitane, Levi’s, Li Ning, McDonald’s, NTT Docomo, OnePlus, Shiseido, Taobao, Tencent Games, TikTok, Youtube.

iQiyi Builds Up Its Content Commerce Business Model With Offline Space and a New Brand for Collaborations

Video streaming platform iQiyi held its annual iJoy Conference in Shanghai on July 11, where it announced content plans for the release of 60 major series along with trends in online entertainment and marketing relevant to brands and other partners. 

  • Content-commerce is a key part of iQiyi’s strategy. Vivian Wang, the company’s chief marketing officer, noted that content now shapes consumption habits and will become a foundational element of new business models over the next decade. “Businesses will only be able to gain traction by creating content-based consumption scenarios and expanding their content-driven business, using content as their entry point and making their brands popular," Wang said. 

  • Drawing on its IP, iQiyi aims to help brands by establishing a new business model of "celebrity/KOL + settings + brand incubator" that connects brands with artists, technology, and other resources supplied by the platform. 

  • Emphasizing the importance of Gen Z and millennial viewers, iQiyi’s reality programming will focus on the subject such as idols, popular culture, and lifestyle. Dramatic series will aim to build on iQiyi’s reputation for high-quality content, most recently seen with the launch of the suspense-oriented Mist Theater and the critically acclaimed “The Bad Kids” (隐秘的角落), and iQiyi plans to offer additional themed content selections focusing on youth romance and Lunar New Year celebrations, among other topics.

  • iQiyi will expand on the content-driven consumption models it has developed on reality shows “Rap of China” (中国新说唱) and “Fourtry” (潮流合伙人), both of which are returning for new seasons in 2020. At the conference, iQiyi announced the creation of the offline Fourtry Space, a trendy store modeled on the one in the upcoming season of the streetwear-focused “Fourtry” that will feature more than 15 brands.

  • iQiyi also launched a new brand called BKStore to serve as a hub for collaborations between brands and artists in pop culture fields such as graffiti, graphic design, and music. 

Bilibili’s Possible Stock “Homecoming” Could Be a Chinese Tech Bellwether

With a growing roster of both domestic and international brands working with the hugely popular, youth-oriented short video platform Bilibili, such as McDonald’s, Shiseido, and Xiaomi, the company has seen impressive revenue growth, with its most recently reported quarterly sales exceeding forecasts at RMB 2.3 billion ($327 million). That said, Bilibili continues to burn cash, with its most recent quarterly net loss jumping 160% year-on-year to RMB 538.6 million ($76.1 million) as marketing expenses tripled. 

In addition to watching to see what the company does to bring in more brand collaborations, attract more users, and stem its cash burn, all eyes are on Bilibili to see how it reacts to the increasingly deep chill in U.S.-China relations. Having listed on the NASDAQ in 2018, recent reports indicate that Bilibili may be considering a secondary listing in Hong Kong —  which would put it among a growing roster of other U.S.-listed Chinese companies that are making similar moves amid ever-rising tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

Read the full story on Content Commerce Insider

Will President Trump Ban WeChat and TikTok In The U.S.?

The pressure is on Chinese-owned apps that operate globally. India has already banned 59 Chinese apps, and American officials are floating similar proposals targeting the biggest players. Days after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the prospect of banning Bytedance’s TikTok on July 6, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said that he expected Trump to take action against both TikTok and Tencent’s WeChat

  • While TikTok and WeChat are both owned by Chinese tech giants, their demographics in the U.S. are very different: TikTok has taken off among teens, while WeChat is mainly used by overseas Chinese and international firms that do business in the Chinese market. 

  • A ban on TikTok would kill the application’s meteoric rise in the U.S., and looming uncertainty is already forcing brands and marketers to rethink their investments in the red-hot social app. The departure of WeChat from the U.S. market would have a smaller impact, as most of its use outside of China is limited to messaging and making payments in certain travel destinations.

Read the full story on Jing Daily

Brand Film Pick: Ikea and Indie Band New Pants Rock it Out for New Parents 

Swedish furniture retailer Ikea has long been popular in China, where it operates more than 30 stores and has undertaken successful localization efforts, including a recent partnership with Tmall to operate a flagship store on the platform with 3D virtual shopping.

The release of a new brand film, “Don’t Ask Me Why I’m Growing” (别再问我为什么长大), continues to boost Ikea’s standing in China.

The film, which shares a remake of features indie rock group New Pants’ hit song “Don’t Ask Me What's Disco” (别再问我什么是迪斯科), with cameos from all three band members, has generated 23.4 million views on Weibo and helped to increase Ikea’s follower count by more than 50%.

The promotional video, created by W&K Shanghai, is imaginative and humorous. A young couple wakes in the middle of the night to find that their cute toddler daughter has grown to an unfathomable size and is destroying the apartment. But thanks to the adjustable nature of Ikea products, the parents are able to alter their furnishings to suit their “monster baby.” 

“Don’t Ask Me Why I’m Growing” exaggerates a universal feeling shared by parents — that their children are growing up too fast — while showcasing how Ikea’s tables, beds, and sofas can accommodate a growing family with lyrics such as, “Every time I get a little taller, mom and dad love me more day by day / Where there is love, there is a home.”

Even as their daughter runs amok, the couple in the music video comically nod their heads to the catchy tune. New Pants, which was formed in 1996, is a particularly befitting choice of musical accompaniment for the film’s target audience. Born in the late 1980s and early 1990s,  the current generation of new parents grew up listening to New Pants. Hearing some of their favorite music associated with the brand taps into nostalgia and allows those who are looking to furnish their family homes to connect their pasts with their futures. 

New Pants has seen a wave of commercial interest over the past year, following the band’s win in iQiyi’s rock competition, “The Big Band” (乐队的夏天), which brought it younger fans as well. Since then, the band and its music have been featured in campaigns for Lexus, Levi’s, and Sprite, among others. 

The collaboration between Ikea and New Pants also looks to be part of a broader trend of branded music videos in China involving high-quality collaborations. Recent examples include Bilibili’s homage to this year’s graduating class with an inspirational ballad by the popular singer Mao Buyi, “Enter the Sea” (入海), and the original rock song by Zhou Shen, “Pupil Extraordinary” (瞳, 出类拔萃) for mobile phone maker OnePlus.  

- by Ben Guggenheim, CCI Team

Report Corner

  • Consumers in China remain optimistic about their country’s post-coronavirus economic recovery, and they have also become more likely to research brand and product choices before buying than shoppers in 12 other major economies, according to the latest global survey on consumer sentiment from McKinsey

  • Alibaba’s fiscal year 2020 annual report notes that its core commerce business grew by 35% year-on-year, video streaming platform Youku saw a 50% increase in average daily paid subscribers, and Taobao Live’s gross merchandise volume from e-commerce livestreaming more than doubled. 

News in English

  • A deep dive into the strength of Chinese social commerce, which accounts for 30% of online retail business, compared to 3% in the U.S. Medium

  • A Netflix era for Chinese video streaming? Online platforms stand to see a major content upgrade as top filmmakers such as Wong Kar-Wai, Chen Kaige, and Feng Xiaogang turn their talents to internet dramas. Global Times

  • And Southeast Asia is emerging as the next battleground for China’s streaming giants as it represents a major new growth market. The Drum

  • Tencent is enlarging its e-commerce footprint with the launch of a new WeChat mini-program that allows any business or individual to operate an online store. KrAsia

  • Recent changes in Pinduoduo’s management that saw founder Colin Huang step down from his position as CEO appeared abrupt, but had actually been hinted at for some time. Pandaily

  • Adidas collaborated with Sanrio on a summer collection featuring the Gudetama character for the Chinese market, with a Douyin dance challenge inspired by the lazy egg figure’s relaxed and playful attitude. Branding in Asia

  • Advice on brand protection while doing business on China’s e-commerce platforms. Kangxin

We’ve Got China Covered

Thank you for reading! We’ll see you again on Tuesday. As always, we love to hear from you so please don’t hesitate to reach out, and have a productive rest of your week.

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